Discover more from Walk It Off
A Walk Through James Hannaham's Brooklyn
"I wanted to be forgotten a little. It's actually an advantage, you know? To feel like no one cares. Or to remind yourself, really, that no one can care as much as you do."
“A lil’ help?”
James Hannaham and I are walking through Clinton Hill when a basketball flies over the fence of a nearby playground. James and I have been walking for about 20 minutes, our back and fourth patter of words matching the rhythm of our steps, our bodies warm in the sun. So, when James stops, it almost feels as if I’m coming out of a trance.
James pauses for a moment and then ambles over to the basketball—catching it before it rolls under a car or, even worse, out into the street—and picks the ball up. By this time, a few of the children who had been playing are now watching James through the chainlink fence, their fingers wrapped around its steel wire. The thought occurs to me that James might fail to toss the ball back over the fence, and I wonder if the children are thinking the same thing. There is the slightest bit of tension in the air, if only for a second.
James, though, doesn’t seemed worried at all, nor should he be. Within the same minuscule amount of time that I have the aforementioned doubting thought, he has easily tossed the ball up and over the fence without taking even a single step closer. The ball bounces back onto the court to a miniature explosion of laughter and clapping from the kids. A few shout, “Thank you!” and, “Nice toss!”
Walking back over to me, James asks, “Where was I?” I jog his memory and we step right back into the flow of our conversation, as well as the flow of our stroll, which will take us from Clinton Hill into Fort Greene and through Downtown Brooklyn. After a quick stop at Hannaham’s art studio we will follow the Gowanus Canal until we end up outside a ginormous Whole Foods. A curious ending spot but, as you’ll soon see, James has his reasons.
But first, let’s start at the beginning, before beautiful basketball throws and big, green monuments to gentrification. I’m running late when I jog over to James, who is waiting patiently by a flat, brick-colored building, and we fall into stride together.
Isaac: So, where are we starting?
James Hannaham: We’re at the Child Development Services Corporation in Clinton Hill. I have an odd story about this place that points to how much this neighborhood—and borough—is a part of my family history.
A few years back I was teaching nearby, and passing this building a lot. I was also working on the book that would eventually become Pilot Impostor, which at the time meant I was looking up people from my dad’s side of the family. One day, I looked up my Uncle Herman, and this building popped up.
Now, Herman died—I think—around the year I was born. But his wife Barbara started this organization, along with a few other women from the surrounding area. At the time it was called the Herman Hannaham Day Nursery. The idea was to help with childcare so women in the neighborhood could go to work, or further their education. A safe place for kids to come and be cared for. Then, at some point in the 1970s, they incorporated and it became the Child Development Support Corporation.
I: And you had no idea? Every day you were passing this building not knowing that it used to bear your family’s name?
JH: I had no idea.
The CDSC’s website describes the organization’s history and mentions that Uncle Herman was an activist. Again, I had no idea. To me, he was an old photograph of somebody with a flute in his hand—a blurry black and white photo where you can’t even see his face.
That’s who Uncle Herman was to me. A guy I didn’t know who probably played the flute. I don’t remember my dad’s side of the family ever talking about him much. I still don't know how he died.
I: Your family has roots in New York City. You’re a New Yorker that's actually from New York.
JH: It's an unusual thing.
I: How long has your family been here?
JH: My father grew up in this neighborhood. He and his seven or eight brothers and sisters did—well, not exactly here, but nearby. Sorta near where Clinton Hill and Bedford–Stuyvesant meet. In the ‘50s they bought a brownstone for something like $11,000. A couple of my cousins still live in that house.
I only recently found out the reason why my father’s side of the family left South Carolina. They lived in Bishopville, I believe. A lot of my family on that side were ministers. It’s a funny story. Well, not funny. More… horrifying.
I: We have time.
JH: It starts with my great-great-great grandmother. My great-great-great grandmother on my dad's side was a woman named Mother Annie Johnson. Now, Mother Annie Johnson came from Madagascar. She was selling spices on a ship—
I: In Madagascar?
JH: In Madagascar. So she came aboard to sell spices—but then the ship simply left.
JH: Left port. With Mother Annie Johnson—and probably a whole bunch of other people—still on it.
I: Jesus Christ.
JH: So Mother Annie Johnson was abducted into chattel slavery. That was a scam called “Blackbirding.” Also known as the “Let me simply grab a Black person real quick and put them into slavery” approach. Slavers would deceive or outright kidnap people—sometimes free Black folks in the USA, like in 12 Years a Slave—and take them to a foreign land where they would then enslave them. In Mother Annie Johnson’s case that foreign land was South Carolina.
[Editor’s note: It is at this point that the previously-mentioned basketball flies over a fence and Hannaham tosses it back like some kind of only-here-to-help-with-the-little-things, neighborhood-level superhero.]
Where was I?
JH: Right. So that’s how my great-great-great grandmother ended up in South Carolina from Madagascar.
I: That's far.
JH: It’s really far.
That said, there were some things familiar to her. I don't have any substantiation for this, but they say the rice they grow in South Carolina—Carolina Gold, they call it—was supposedly from Madagascar.
So the rice was familiar. Both South Carolina and Madagascar are very rice-y cultures—because people from Madagascar are what you get when you cross East African Bantu people with Indonesians and other cultures further east.
That's why I have trace amounts of Chinese and Filipino DNA.
I: You did a DNA test?
JH: I did. Because I'd heard so many wild stories, much like the one I’m telling you now, and I thought to myself, “Is this all bullshit?”
I: What kind of stories?
JH: Stories about slave master rape. Or Native Americans marrying into Black families to avoid the Trail of Tears. Or stories like that of Mother Annie Johnson, and how many eastern cultures she was supposedly linked to. So much history that had me wondering, “Does any of this check out?”
So I took the DNA test. And it all checked out. Every one of the stories. They all checked out. That is to say, my DNA supports the stories. Who knows what really happened.
JH: Now, mind you, I’m mostly West African. The older I get—the more I understand this stuff and the more I think about my attitude toward life—the more I believe it's Nigerian, specifically.
I: Why’s that?
JH: The people I know from Nigeria, they all have a certain kind of audacity. They'll tell you some shit that blows your mind, and then they'll be all, “How did you not know this? This is common knowledge.” Meanwhile, you're just thinking, “What are you talking about?”
I: Checks out.
JH: I haven’t even told you the story I meant to tell you yet. Which is even more horrifying than Mother Annie Johnson’s abduction into slavery. Why the family on my father’s side left South Carolina.
It was around the time of the Great Migration, but maybe slightly earlier. The family moved to Pittsburgh and then made their way to New York City. Which I knew. But only two years ago one of my cousins told me why they had left South Carolina, which is because—according to my cousin Donna—my great-uncle was lynched.
I: Fucking hell.
JH: I know.
Not something I had known before. Crazy. Horrifying. But I could see why you would get the fuck out of South Carolina and come up north.
I: So your family comes to New York during your father’s generation. Brooklyn specifically. But you weren’t born in Brooklyn, right?
I: Where does your mom hail from?
JH: Mom was from Georgia, originally. She's not with us anymore. She was one of 11 children. Only one of whom is still alive. That’s the Walker side.
I: Did she come up for college?
JH: No, she came up when she was, I don't know, maybe seven or eight? Maybe nine? I’m pretty sure it was before she was 10.
The Walker side’s story isn’t as dramatic as the Hannaham side’s. Some of the older siblings of my mother's generation moved up to Harlem and it went really well for them. So again, the Great Migration. But gradually, not all at once. New York wasn’t paradise or anything, but it was a place where you could get a job—
I: Buy a building.
JH: You could get an education without people saying that you weren't even capable of getting an education. Education was important on both sides of my family. I have a lot of people who educated themselves by being ministers and being clergy and going into the military. All of that. There were some smart motherfuckers on both sides.
So, you know. A smart Black person in the south at that time? You had to get the fuck out.
My mother was one of those people who—I think she had that Nigerian audacity I was talking about from a very young age. She was a truth teller. She’d say shit that everybody was thinking, but nobody wanted—or was able—to say. So her family knew, “We have to get her on out of here. She’s too smart.”
I: “You’re going to get the rest of us in trouble.”
JH: Exactly. So she moves up here and eventually goes to City College, where she meets my dad. He was a lacrosse jock.
I: No shit?
JH: No shit. Not long after, they had my brother. My parents wanted to get out of the city at that point. They looked at a bunch of different places and settled on Yonkers, which is mainly where I grew up.
For the record, I didn’t mean to tell you my whole family history.
I: No, but I find it fascinating. Your books are packed with characters, and you’re so good at writing different voices—it makes sense that you’re from these large, vibrant families with complex histories.
JH: I guess that’s true.
I: Can’t help but notice that while we’re talking education—your parents meeting at City College, etc.—we’re coming up on the Pratt campus, which is where you teach.
JH: That’s my office window right over there.
I: You’re a professor in the writing department. Was writing always the dream?
I: You’re also a visual artist. Was visual art the dream?
JH: What was the dream? I think the dream kept transforming itself. I was listening for what it might be, without ever really knowing what it was. That said, I—like a lot of people on my father's side of the family—I started as a musician.
I: A musician?
JH: I'm a composer.
I: For a second there I thought you were going to say, “I’m a minister.”
JH: No, no. Although, I used to be obsessed with ministers. There was this AM radio station I’d to listen to, WWRL, that used to have nonstop back-to-back preachers—Black preachers for a long period of the evening. I would listen to these guys every night before bed, and they were fucking hilarious. I became obsessed with the words they—I don't know how they would develop this skill—but they were all so good at saying these words or phrases when they’d have to take a breath. “Hallelujah!” “Praise God!” “Have mercy, Jesus!” Peppering those phrases into their sermon constantly.
I: Their way of taking a beat.
JH: Yes! But they’d done it for so long that it was rhythmic. Second nature. It was their chance to catch a breath, sure—but it almost seemed as natural as the breathing itself. “Hallelujah!” “Praise God!”
I: So, you were not a minister. But again, this interest in the way people speak—in the rhythms of voice. But we were talking music. Did you play an instrument as a kid?
JH: I played the clarinet. Badly.
I: You played clarinet, your uncle played the flute. Wind instruments were big in the Hannaham family.
JH: I had another uncle who play the trumpet, too. I wanted to play piano—there was also a moment that I wanted to play the violin, but that didn’t last long. Probably because I didn’t get one. I’m actually putting together an hour of programming for Montez Press Radio—an “experimental broadcasting and performance platform”—that includes a lot of music and readings; it’s the first time in a long time I’ve done anything like that.
I: Where did your interest in music come from? Your family, or—
JH: I simply wanted to make music. I wanted to make music, and I feel like I haven't stopped, in a certain way. I’m attentive to the ways in which writing is a kind of music.
This is something I say to my students a lot, actually.
I: How so?
JH: You’re going to make me teach? Ok. Because when you write pretty much anything, you're essentially asking someone to read a musical score—to hear it in their head. So an attentiveness to sound and rhythm and meter is really useful to your aesthetic as somebody who's putting words on a page. It's pretty similar to putting notes on a staff, in its way. You don't get the tones, necessarily—unless you're dealing with a tonal language—but either way, it's not so different.
I: I love that. It’s also something I love about your writing. You’re so good at capturing different voices—different speech patterns and dialects. You even do it in conversation. You’ll slip into impressions and different voices—
[Editor’s note: Hannaham slips into one of his many, many voices while arching an eyebrow.]
JH: Why Isaac, whatever do you mean?
I: In your novel Delicious Foods, you famously turned crack cocaine into a character named Scotty, and Scotty has this incredibly unique voice. Between your obsession with the preachers and your views on writing as music, it’s wonderful to see how this all comes together in your brain—not to mention in your writing.
But back to you playing the clarinet.
I: Right, badly. Did you go to college for music?
JH: By that time I knew I wasn’t a talented musician.
I: You went to Yale, right?
JH: Correct. Partially because they had a really good music department. In fact, one of my best friends and former college roommates is still a composer, a guy named Andrew May. We were in a band together.
I: What was the name of the band?
JF: It was called Persona Non Grata. It was punk… influenced? I didn't know how to count so well, so a lot of the songs are in strange math rock time signatures. There was one that was in 13/8, I think.
I: As someone lacks any music education whatsoever, I have no idea what that means. But was that the dream? Sort of this ‘90s, “I want to be a rockstar” dream? Or, as somebody studying to be a composer, were you trying to go the more classical route?
JH: I don’t think I really knew what I was doing. There wasn’t much of a plan.
I: Is it safe to say making art was the plan?
JH: For me it’s all making art. I did a bunch of different things that were related to making art. One of them was writing. One of them was composing.
I: One of them is visual art.
JH: After college I worked at the Village Voice in the design department. I was a design assistant. Two other writers who I admired had held the same position, Hilton Als and Cynthia Carr—who often publishes as C. Carr.
I was a huge fan of C. Carr’s work—she really changed my life. She wrote all of these articles about Karen Finley, and performance art in downtown New York. I was immediately hooked. I remember thinking, “That sounds so exciting.”
I: You then go on to do a fair amount of culture writing yourself. But I keep defining you as a writer—
JH: And I keep pushing against that.
I: So let’s talk a little bit about your vision of yourself. About your philosophy around creativity. I keep trying to define you—through your writing, or your visual art, or the fact that you still play music. But how does James Hannaham define himself?
JH: Well, the trick is, I try not to. The trick is, I put myself in service of an idea that I have. I don't decide I am a certain kind of person who has to do a certain kind of work. I simply say, “I could do this idea.” Then I try to do it—if I think I can.
Sometimes it's a novel, sometimes it's a drawing that doesn't work, or sometimes it's one that does. Sometimes it's a specious installation—that seems to be a thing I'm doing on a regular basis. I think that's actually what I do, is the specious installation as artwork.
I: Speak to me like I'm an idiot. Specious meaning?
JH: Meaning done under... not false pretenses, necessarily. But questionable. Questionable pretenses.
One of the installations I did was a group of works I called “Functional Ready-Mades.” The title of the show was “The Revelation of the Self-Evident.” The ready-made is an object that the artist decides is art by taking its function away, but the functional ready-made is an object that still has a use.
I: Still functions.
JH: You can still use it—
I: But it's art.
JH: But it's art.
There was a piece called “Piece of Shit Vacuum Cleaner,” where you could vacuum up some coffee. There was a sign that said, “No smoking.” There was a mirror. It was a bunch of—
I: Stuff that actually works.
JH: Found objects that you could still use in some capacity.
I: One of my favorite works of yours is—what do you call those little description signs that are on the wall next to art in a museum?
JH: The technical term is didactics. Wall didactics—or a didactic panel.
I: You made a didactic for the sky.
I: Would that fall under what you’re talking about, the specious—
JH: Well, if it was part of an exhibit—which it has been—then yes.
I: The last exhibit of yours was called—
JH: Jim Crow Hell No.
I: “A faux-historical exhibition of bygone mid-20th Century signage from America’s racist, sexist, and homophobic present.”
JH: Yes. It was a specious installation.
I: So—and I know you are not trying to be pigeonholed—but what came first?
JH: It depends on the pigeon.
I: I’ll ask again, what came first?
JH: Who came first?
I: We’ve got music. We’ve got writing. We’ve got visual art. What came first?
JH: I guess I’d say… performance?
I: God damn it.
JH: I was always making faces.
By the time I showed up on the scene—I was an accidental pregnancy—my parents were already on the skids. I mean, they were probably on the skids since the day they met, but that’s a whole other story. 18 months after I was born, my parents were divorced.
I had no clue what was happening in my family, I just knew that everybody was upset. We were going to counseling all the time, and everyone was angry, so I was constantly asking, “Why is this happening?”
In hindsight it was probably to make some space for myself—but I started making faces. Both to make space for myself and in hopes of making everybody else feel a little better. I would do funny voices, or act out shit to amuse my siblings and my mom. Simply to make things a hair better for all of us. Or that’s what I hoped.
I: So you were a bit of a ham.
I: James Hanna—ham, if you will.
I: You’ve heard that one before, I take it.
JH: Many, many times. But what is funny, is there’s a little story behind that, too.
My grandfather—being deeply religious—changed the last “N” in our name to “M” to reflect that we were children of Ham—as in the son of Noah.
I: I know my Bible. Ham as in his descendants supposedly populated Africa.
I: So it was originally “Hannahan.”
JH: Which leads to a lot of people asking if I’m Irish—when they find out. To which I respond, “Yes. Black Irish.”
I: Look at that. Humor. Performance. Your first art. You have done some acting, right?
JH: I was one of the founders of Elevator Repair Service.
I: You're a hard man to encapsulate.
JH: Good thing this is a long walk.
I: So, all these different art forms are connected—and I should probably stop trying to figure out any type of timeline?
JH: Now you’re getting it.
I: Where do you think that drive—your drive to make art—comes from? Do you think it comes from your being the youngest child? That young, confused kid trying to make space for himself and keep everybody happy?
JH: I think it started that way, but there was also a lot to support it. I had a lot of people in my family—especially the two final children on my mother’s side—who were not only artistic people, but they were people who actually went out and fucking did the shit. They made shit. They published shit. And they would look at us kids and say, “Well? What about you?”
It was a weird pressure, in a way.
I: It made making art feel possible?
I: “Look at us. We can do it. Why not you?”
JH: I'm not one of those people who writes an essay about how I didn't know that Black people could write books, because my Uncle Howard—who was a minister—had written a book. That book was on my shelf next to Sammy Davis, Jr., Ulysses, and all of this other stuff my mother was reading at the time. I had all these examples in my life that were counter to what the culture might have wanted to tell me. It was right in front of my eyes.
My other uncle—Uncle Larry—is an artist and makes a living as an art professor. My mother was a hard news radio journalist who had won a ton of awards. She was a bit famous in Westchester County in the ‘70s and ‘80s. She had a couple of different radio shows, including one called Strictly Black. She talked to all of the movers and shakers in Black Westchester, of which there are probably a lot more than people think.
I mean, look, we weren’t part of the Black elite. I had a strange relationship to money because my dad had climbed the economic ladder but kind of kicked it away after the divorce, leaving my mom to raise three kids on something like 17K a year. The Walkers came from practically nowhere in rural Georgia, but they happened to be geniuses is the thing.
I: Would now be the time to mention that your cousin—
JH: Kara Walker. Like I said, geniuses.
I: So you and Kara both grew up in this family of, “We make art, why not you?”
JH: Right. Art was possible, and so many people in my family made art—or worked in creative fields.
I: A product of Hannaham—variation of Hannahan—and Walker.
JH: Speaking of which, we’re now in Fort Greene. And that hospital is the hospital where my father died.
JH: I was supposed to visit him that day. Which, given how much he forgot to visit us—usually out of town on business—well, it's a kind of poetic justice.
Once, when he and I were supposed to get together he said, “Who’s paying?” To which I responded, “Who’s paying child support?” He didn’t find that very amusing.
I: Didn’t see the humor in it?
JH: Well, to be fair to him… Game recognized game enough that he didn’t get too angry about it. In a way, I think I fascinated him because I could take him or leave him. I kind of didn't much care, which he wasn’t used to.
I: Maybe he even appreciated it.
JH: One time he pulled this stunt—he came to visit, but then he hopped in the car, as if he was going to drive away and leave me there.
I: Most kids would be thinking, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.”
JH: But he’d left the car door open. So I ran up to the car—and he thought I was chasing after him—but when I caught up to him I said, “You forgot to close the door” and simply pushed it shut and walked away. I knew he was trying to fuck with me, so I remember thinking, “I'm not going to give you anything.”
I: You mentioned Ulysses when talking about your mom’s bookcase. A lot of people are comparing your most recent book, Didn't Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta, to Ulysses—
JH: As they should. That’s what I was going for.
I: Right, so why'd you want to write Brooklyn Ulysses?
JH: I didn't, but it turned out that everything I was doing led me in that direction. It was a giant snowball effect where what I really wanted to talk about was—sort of what you and I are talking about now. How much Clinton Hill and Fort Greene and Brooklyn in general—how much this area has changed over the years, and is still changing.
I mean, it’s so rapid. Even the last five years. You go to Google Maps and you look at this neighborhood—nothing. None of these buildings are here. It's really bizarre.
The first couple of books I wrote took place in the South. I had avoided writing about New York because I felt like everybody had written about New York. What did I have to contribute?
But then I realized I have this granular knowledge of this area that I could take advantage of and, I don’t know—well, flex on all these out-of-towners who come and live on the Upper East Side for two weeks and then want to write their New York novel because they read the New Yorker.
I wanted to write about the transformation of Brooklyn from Dangerous Black Neighborhood™️ to Literary Capital of the United States™️, essentially. I thought I needed a character who had missed it all—so that it would be shocking and exciting. Not simply me saying, “Look. They built a gigantic tower and called it City Point!”
Which is when I realized that my main character should be someone who had been in prison the whole time—someone who would have missed all of these changes. Who notices, for instance, that the Atlantic Dental sign, which used to be right here, is now gone.
I: I remember that sign.
JH: That’s good to hear. My editor thought that reference might be too niche, but then this woman I was doing an event with the other day mentioned it as part of something that made the book feel really true, which was incredible. My husband, Brendan, and I goofed on that sign for years.
I: The people miss the Atlantic Dental sign.
So you knew your character would be getting out of jail, and that you wanted to comment on the gentrification of Brooklyn—
JH: So I started doing a lot of research, which is when I realized that—by writing a story about somebody who's coming back from traumatic experiences in upstate New York, I’d sort of, by necessity, be rewriting The Odyssey.
I: How do you mean?
JH: After the Revolutionary War, when the new U.S. government was giving away Native American lands to Revolutionary War veterans because they didn’t have any money to pay them with, there was this one guy in office—maybe he was simply a clerk at the time? Anyhow, his name was Robert Harpur and he was a classical literature buff, which led him to name around 28 different municipalities in upstate New York after classical references.
I: Oh, shit. Ithaca.
JH: Ithaca was actually named by Simeon DeWitt. I think the idea kind of caught on, and other places did it, too. But there's a ton. I had noticed this, but didn’t realize the whole story until I started seriously researching it. Homer, NY is one that Robert Harpur named. There’s Cato. Brutus. Ovid. Hector. Ulysses. Virgil. It goes on and on. The area is referred to as the Central New York Military Tract.
But here’s the problem. Everybody's used The Odyssey as source material. I remember thinking to myself, “Is there any way to jazz this up?” None.
JH: But then—then—is when my husband and I went to Ireland. I had never been. And I brought Ulysses. I actually wanted to find that copy my mother owned and bring it along, but it was too tattered.
I: Not fit for travel.
JH: But I found another, similarly old copy of the book—I don't remember what year exactly, but an old edition—and I brought it with me. The minute I started reading I said to myself, “Oh, I know what I'll do. I'll use this. And I’ll use this, too.” I knew that it was famously a retelling of The Odyssey. What if I layered that in, too?
So many people have used the Odyssey—
I: The hero’s journey.
JH: Right, so I was really resistant at first. But I was simply making things harder for myself. And reading Ulysses helped me see that.
I: How long did you work on the book?
JH: I first started putting words on the page in June of 2014. This book ended up taking longer than Delicious Foods, actually.
I: Oh, wow.
JH: I wanted to let some time pass. I wanted to be forgotten a little. It's actually an advantage, you know? To feel like no one cares. Or to remind yourself, really, that no one can care as much as you do.
I: Did you enjoy writing a book where the main character moves around so much? A book based on a journey? You’ve got The Odyssey—which is, what? A decade? Then you’ve got Ulysses—it’s the span of a day. What did you enjoy about having a character that was moving around that much?
JH: It gave me the opportunity to pretty much do what we're doing right now. To simply look around and say, “Oh, shit. That's different. And that’s different. And is that the dude Spike Lee based that one character on?”
I: Did you walk around Brooklyn a whole bunch as part of writing this book?
JH: I already had walked around Brooklyn a whole bunch, Isaac! That’s not really where I needed to focus my research.
It was much more, “I've never been to prison.” And very much, “I am not trans.” Because I knew this character—from sort of early on—the main character let me know she was going to be a trans woman. In my research on prison culture, I found that LGBTQI+ community members have very particular and difficult struggles in prison. I’m motivated by survivor’s guilt, a bit. Always have been. I often write about people I feel like I could have been. “There but for the grace of God go I,” or whatever. As the August Darnell lyric goes.
I: That’s true of both Delicious Foods and God Says No.
JH: It is. So those two things were the main focus of my research. I read so much. Watched so many documentaries—so many shows. I learned so much slang.
I: Again, a return to language.
JH: The level of slang everyone is throwing around in various factions of the carceral system alone—let’s just say, I looked up a lot of slang.
I: Because that’s what fascinates you. In a way, it brings us back to the musicality of writing—the musicality of your writing. You're simply a master of dialogue. Of voice.
JH: Isn’t it a lil’ problematic to use the word “master,” Isaac?
I: Jesus Christ. Ok, fair point. You are a prodigy of—
JH: Isn't the band Prodigy kind of passé?
I: Ok, now you’re just fucking with me.
JH: They did have a song called, “Smack My Bitch Up,” Isaac.
I: Ok, you’re—
JH: And some pretty bad haircuts.
I: Fine. Moving on from the compliment I was trying to give you. Do you think one of the reasons you were drawn to Carlotta’s story is the different variations of slang—and voice—that you could dive into?
JH: Absolutely. In fact, it was just as important to me as addressing the social issues—incarceration, race, homophobia, transphobia—you know, all that. The way that all of those social constructs are expressed and reinforced by language, the way that language can create community and exclude outsiders at the same time.
I: Themes that have always been central to your work.
JH: I mean—
I: Your writing work.
JH: Fine. Yes.
I: God damn it.
JH: Listen. It's in the blood. That’d be one way to put it. Look at Kara’s work. Look at Uncle Larry—Kara’s father—’s work. That's my blood.
I: Is there pride?
I: In most families, you're going to have one person who makes it as an artist—at best! It feels like y'all have a plethora of them—even generationally. Your mom was a successful radio news host. Her brother is an art academic. His child goes on to be Kara Walker. You go on to be James Hannaham. Is there familial pressure? Sure. But when you say, “It’s in the blood”—is there a bit of pride? A bit of, “Fuck yeah. We kick ass.”
JH: I don't think anyone in our family is arrogant enough to say that.
I: Ok, but—
JH: I simply think we all have something to say, even the non-Kara, non-Larry, people in my family. Just not all of us have a platform. Yet.
My parents' generation was good enough at making art to show us that it was possible. Not just that it was possible—but that if you're going to do it, you better kick the fucking shit—
I: You better kick ass at it.
JH: That’s where the “ass kicking” would come in, yes. I guess it's a little bit of that old Black chestnut. The saying, “If you're going to be a street sweeper, you better be the best street sweeper you can possibly be.”
I: The ol’, “You're going to have to be twice as good and do it in half the time.”
JH: There’s a joke about that, I guess, that I was making in God Says No, where Gary is giving a blowjob through a glory hole and he’s having that same sort of feeling like, “I’m going to make this guy feel incredible...” because somebody insulted him in a horrific racial kind of way. So Gary thinks, “I’m going to make you want fat black men.”
I: “I'm going to suck dick so good that I'm going to become the standard.”
[Editor’s note: At this point we stop at Hannaham’s art studio to find some shade and a couple of cold Topo Chicos. Eventually we end up in the backyard, before being driven away by Gowanus mosquitos.]
I: Speaking of God Says No—the book that originally made me a James Hannaham fan—
JH: How old are you now?
I: 39. I’m about to turn 40.
JH: Do you know how many books I had published when I was 40?
I: How many?
I: Damn. Well, that’s a great lead in. How does God Says No happen?
JH: How does it happen?
I: You’re already making art. You’re putting music into the world. Visual art. Performance. You’re writing about culture—
JH: Blah, blah, blah.
I: What makes you say, “Fuck it. I'm writing a book?”
JH: I decided to go to grad school after having done a bunch of residencies. Everything in my life has been ass backwards in that way. But I’d come across this story—a number of stories, actually—in which gay men sounded like they hadn't progressed out of the 1950s. A stockbroker who was living a double life. Another person who used one name during the daytime and another name at the clubs at night.
I: On the down low.
JH: I was saying to myself, “This is so fucking weird. Didn't we do this already?” Which is when I started coming across stories of people who claimed to be “cured” of their homosexuality.
They were these really fascinating documents. About two pages long. You could tell they’d had the shit edited out of them. They contained all these oddly magical sounding occurrences. People were having visions of Christ. The one I remember most vividly, there was someone who was at a gay club and everyone's faces melted and Jesus walked out onto the dance floor. I don't know what Jesus was wearing. That'd be kind of interesting to know.
I: What does does Jesus wear clubbing?
JH: Right? Anyhow, Jesus gets to the person and says, “This not what I want for you, my child.” All this weird shit. And it was written in this very choppy style. Iowa Writers' Workshop style, basically.
I: Let’s not start any fights.
JH: I love that fight.
Anyhow, after reading a bunch of those, I said to myself, “I’d really love to see what would happen if you connected all the dots.” Because there was so much that had been left out and you could tell. So I started writing in the style of those testimonials.
Which was also a little joke with myself.
I: How so?
JH: A lot of publishing—which is to say a lot of white people—often think novels by Black people are simply us transcribing our experiences and switching the names. And that’s exactly what happened. There was one agent who thought God Says No was autofiction.
I: So how’d it end up in McSweeney’s?
JH: Jennifer Egan.
I: Friend and mentor Jennifer Egan?
JH: I gave a talk once where I realized halfway through that the talk could be titled: I Did Everything Jennifer Egan Asked Me to Do and Look at Me Now. I obeyed everything she said, even when it was contradictory, and it made no sense to me at all—and even she doesn't remember saying it, but—
I: But, “Look at me now.”
JH: When I was in grad school, I had no idea what to do for my thesis. Jenny told me I should make God Says No my thesis. I disagreed. She won.
Then, when I was out of grad school, I came back to New York and Jenny helped me find an agent. A new agent. She opened her Rolodex to me, essentially. You remember Rolodexes?
I: It’s nice that you think I’m so young.
JH: I sent the manuscript to 30 or so agents. We did this for about a year with no bites. After a year, we had a little pity party at Jenny’s house where we printed out all the email responses and tried to figure out if there was some sort of pattern—something that would help guide us. Or something I could use to revise the manuscript. What was it that was making this book not appeal to agents?
We poured over the responses, but there was simply no consensus. One said, “I love the first part, but not the third part.” Another, “I like the middle part, but the first part is terrible.” It was like the parable of the blind men and the elephant.
Eventually Jenny said, “Well, we can't figure out a pattern. So, you know what? I'm going to send it directly to three editors I know personally.” At which point Jennifer Egan became my agent, essentially. She sent it to three publishers and—coming from Jenny—all three were interested.
I: Who was it?
JH: Akashic, Picador, and McSweeney's.
The reason that it wound up at McSweeney's is a totally different story that has to do with what I was doing at the time.
I: What was that?
JH: I was writing for The Voice again, because I was back from grad school and I needed to make some money. But also because Brian Parks was the arts editor. Brian's somebody I've always enjoyed working with. Wherever he goes, I'll go.
I: Back to culture writing.
JH: I was doing this feature that I really loved doing called—I forget exactly what we called it, but it was very similar to Walk It Off, actually. The concept was we’d find some artist, or writer, or somebody who had a new, you know, thing. And we’d go have some drinks, and then go to a movie, and then go see an art show. Really pack a whole bunch of things into a single night. And then I’d write about it.
I: Walk It Off but… doing stuff.
JH: I only ended up doing it twice. I did one with Kara, and I did one with Jonathan Ames. But it was really fun.
I wanted to convince Zadie Smith to do one. The Book of Other People had just come out and she was doing an event at Symphony Space. So I went there thinking that I could maybe accost her afterward. At the end of the reading, people were going up on stage to get their books signed. And in a row there was Zadie Smith, Vendela Vida, and George Saunders.
I: A good crew.
JH: I had met George Saunders before because he came to the Michener Center to give a talk, and we all hung out after. All of us had lunch together and he basically wore us out. He was really fantastic. Such a good guy.
I: McSweeney’s also being an early publisher of Saunders.
I knew what I wanted to say to Zadie Smith, so that was set. But the only thing I could think of to say to Vendela was, “Oh, I have this manuscript that you guys are looking at right now.” I was simply trying to make conversation. But—well, Zadie Smith turned me down, of course—but the next day Eli Horowitz, an editor at McSweeney’s at the time—
I: I love Eli.
JH: Eli reached out and asked, “Is this manuscript still available?” My first response was, “What is this? Did Vendela call him? Did I mention that other publishers were interested?”
I: After a year of rejection.
JH: The rejection was from agents. Jennifer Egan got all three publishers interested.
So Eli and I got on the phone and we had a little conversation. Not long after I hung up, the phone rang again and I picked it up. It was Eli. He simply said, “You know what? Let’s do this.”
I: That is a very Eli, and a very McSweeney’s, and a very Vendela thing to do. You meet her face to face, then a little talk with Eli, and then, “Let’s let it rip.”
JH: It worked out.
I: Do you approach your art different than your writing?
JH: You keep trying to nail this one down, huh? You're not going to do it. I've spent too much time undoing that.
I: Ok. Let me take you another direction. Why is it important to undo that?
JH: Why is anything important?
JH: Look. I think my idea about art has always been that it's more fun when it's interdisciplinary. And it's more fun when—on some level—it’s collaborative. It feels newer to me. So it’s important to me not to be so obsessed with boundaries. Not to care about these distinctions you keep trying to make.
I want to be in exciting places, among people who are doing interesting things. That’s all I care about.
I: Interesting people doing interesting things—sounds like your family.
JH: A bit. You’re not wrong. Not everybody in my family is an artistic weirdo, but everybody has at least some type of artistic temperament.
I: So in a way, that’s where you feel comfortable.
JH: I’ll take that.
I: Did you always know you were going to end our walk at this Whole Foods?
JH: A greater example of gentrification you’d be hard to find than this bright, clean Whole Foods on top of the black-mayonnaise-filled Gowanus.
I: Hard not to think of Delicious Foods. Did that start with a newspaper article as well? Like God Says No?
JH: I had taken a course in graduate school called Cultural Tourism, Slavery Museums, and the Modern Neo-Slavery Novel, in which we read a whole bunch of books by Black authors who had wanted to, in some way, address the legacy of slavery in our country.
We read Dessa Rose by Shirley Anne Williams, Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed, Middle Passage by Charles Johnson, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and a whole bunch of others. Cambridge by Caryl Phillips. I’m forgetting a few.
So I started thinking, “What would I do if I were going to do this kind of book?” And something that occurred to me was, it’s too easy to set something in the past and have readers think, “Oh, this is all done with.”
I: “Slavery occurred back in the day.”
JH: Then I read John Bowe's Nobodies, in which he describes various labor abuses around the world. One of the stories he tells is about this woman who was essentially enslaved in Florida in 1992. A Black woman in Florida in 1992 was a slave. Now, people try to put different language around it—but that’s what it was. She was a slave.
When I read that, I lost my mind. “What?!” If I was asking, “Didn't we do this already,” about the things I was writing about while working on God says No—well, this was off the chart. I was appalled. But, in a certain sense, it was also—I don’t know. It was disappointingly true, it felt like.
Right away I knew a few things. First, I knew nobody would want to read about this. Second, I thought, I’ll probably have this subject to myself for long enough to write a novel about it. Third, this issue is likely to resurface in the news periodically without ever getting eliminated.
I: Nobody wanted to face it.
JH: Nobody was facing it. Or dealing with it. Capitalism in its purest form is simply, “We want cheap labor at any cost to human dignity. Or human life. And if we can get it for free, we'll try to get it for free.” Morality schmorality.
But that is, of course, a complete bummer. Forget people reading it, how was I going to make it bearable for me to even write about it? The idea of Scotty, as a character, came about for a bunch of different reasons, but that was one of them. “How can I make this story readable—or even writable.”
It’s unbearable to think about how horrible this topic is. What has to happen to people before they can be debased into a place where they will not even question the idea that somebody’s abducting them in a van and taking them off to work forced labor on a plantation. That was one of the questions, aside from simply—“What the actual fuck?”—that I wanted to answer with the book.
I: Mother Annie Johnson comes to mind.
JH: I didn’t know that story at the time. Maybe she was influencing me deep in my DNA. Yet even mother Annie Johnson was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time—in the wrong time period.
I: On the wrong boat.
JH: This was a true story of a woman in Florida in 1992. When I read that, that’s when I started working on Delicious Foods. I had this idea for a main character who was a drug addict. But it didn't feel honest to write a lucid account of the past in the voice of somebody who had been addicted at the time. Because your mind is—you forget so much when you’re an addict.
So I was writing in a kind of third person—just over my main character’s shoulder—in a type of street vernacular. But I decided, after watching too many episodes of Intervention, that I wanted the character to have fallen further, to have had a shot at education, to have been on the way to the middle class. But I was still enjoying writing that street voice, and wanted to keep doing it. So I asked myself, “If it’s not her, who is that voice?” And one of the answers I came up with was “Oh, it’s the drug. The drug is the narrator.” Immediately I thought, “Nobody’s going to like that. Nobody wants to hear crack cocaine’s side of the story.” But then I thought, “You know, Victor LaValle would like that.” I probably would have done it anyway, but it was reassuring to think of one person who wouldn’t want to run me out of town for it.
I: Is Scotty your favorite voice? In all your art—I won’t say writing—in everything you do. You do so many voices. Is Scotty your favorite?
JH: Do you have a favorite pet, Isaac? Do you have a favorite relative? A favorite love?
JH: I’ll tell you, anytime I catch a voice—some weirdo making strange sounds, someone going off on someone else, some accent, some slang term—whenever I catch a voice in the street, I’m like, “Oh, there’s my muse.” There’s no particular voice that’s my favorite. It’s when I figure a voice out. That’s when I feel something.
I: Are you talking to yourself a lot of the time—trying to suss these voices out?
JH: What is an author but somebody who spends most of their time talking to imaginary people in their heads? Not that I’m just an author.
By this point, the mosquito bites that we received in the backyard of James Hannaham’s art studio are starting to show, and both of us are beginning to itch. Before we part ways, though—with Hannaham heading back to his studio and me continuing on and up into Park Slope—James stops and points at a brick building in the distance.
“That building used to have giant graffiti on it that read, ‘End Stop & Frisk • Hands Off the Kids.’”
Much like the Atlantic Dental sign, I remember the graffiti, and say so. “I wonder why they scrubbed it off,” I ask, naively.
“Zhuzhing it up for something,” James replies. “Probably another high-rise condominium despite the Gowanus Canal still being a heavily contaminated superfund site.”
James shrugs, wipes a bit of sweat from his brow, and we hug goodbye.
Weeks later, still thinking about James’ insistence that I don’t silo his art—categorize it or label it or put up unnecessary boundaries around it—while walking by the same Whole Foods where Hannaham and I parted ways, I look up and realize, yet again, that James was right.
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